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Money and politics mix for an evil brew, panelists say

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
September 22, 2009
— Clean Wisconsin politics? That phrase might elicit chuckles these days, and that’s dangerous for democracy.

That was one of the themes that emerged at a forum on campaign-finance reform Monday night.


Common Cause in Wisconsin organized the panel discussion that included three local Democratic legislators, former Democratic legislator Tim Cullen of Janesville and Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause.


Heck had tried to get a Republican legislator to join the group, as well as a local political commentator, but both bowed out for scheduling reasons.


About 25 people attended the forum. Most if not all who spoke seemed to support reforms and asked questions, so the session was mostly information sharing.


The lawmakers said the system is spinning out of control.


“I think it should be a battle of words, and not a battle of bucks, which is what it’s coming to,” said Rep. Chuck Benedict of Beloit.


“We can’t allow democracy to be sold to the highest bidder,” said Rep. Kim Hixson of Whitewater.


Cullen said the influence of money makes for bitter partisanship, keeps the people’s business from getting done, corrupts government and makes citizens cynical.


Cullen warned that lawyers for both parties would find loopholes in any reform.


However, requiring disclosure of where the money comes from could reduce the amount of money spent, because donors often don’t want their names revealed, Cullen said.


One of the bills expected to pass in this legislative session would attack the problem of “issue ads” that run within 60 days of an election. Anyone running those ads would have to disclose who is paying for them, just as the candidates already have to do for their contributors.


Sen. Judy Robson of Beloit said her Republican colleagues are just as frustrated as the Democrats about these ads, which confuse the public and drown out the candidates’ messages.


The other bill at the top of the legislative agenda would address the huge sums that have poured in to influence state Supreme Court races in recent years. The bill would publicly finance Supreme Court races, paid for with an increase in the voluntary check-off on income-tax forms.


Heck called the bills an amazing step forward after decades of no reforms.


Heck said after the forum that issue ads backing both Democrats and Republicans are to be faulted. He said the attorney who represents GOP-leaning Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce on campaign finance reform is the same one that represents the Democrat-leaning Wisconsin Education Association Council.


“The folks in power like to keep things the way they are,” Heck said.



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